Plans for a new qualifying exam to be taken by all would-be solicitors have been delayed after an overwhelmingly negative response, the Solicitors Regulation Authority admitted today.
However the regulator insisted the case for the solicitors qualifying exam (SQE) remains strong.
The SRA received more than 250 responses to a consultation on its proposal, which closed in March.
SRA executive director Crispin Passmore (pictured) told a media briefing this afternoon that around 40-50 of the responses were ‘wholly positive’, about 100 were ‘wholly negative’, and around 100 said they were ‘not keen on this as you’ve designed it at the moment, but if you can give us more detail, engage with us and answer some of our questions, then we can’t see any reason why this can’t be a good way forward’.
‘Considerable’ opposition came from universities and academic representative groups.
The regulator had planned to make a decision this month on the principle of introducing the SQE and then consult on the details of its plans. It will now work up more detailed proposals, which will include thinking about how the exam could work alongside a period of recognised work-based learning.
The consultation, which will be published 'later in the autumn’, will provide a draft of the assessment framework, explaining in detail the potential nature of the exam, its level of difficulty, and breadth and depth of the curriculum.
Passmore said the regulator would not be looking to make any changes before the 2019 academic year.
When asked about the uncertainty the delay could create for would-be lawyers, Passmore said: 'We’re not going to throw away people that have come through a certain route, whether they’re part-way through their training or 20 years’ qualified. We won’t suddenly say “well, that route of qualification doesn’t exist anymore”. So the certainty is if you’ve started down the route there will be portability and transferability.'
SRA board chair Enid Rowlands added: 'We’re not going to abandon any person, young or old, if they’ve started. If somebody’s embarked on a course we’ll make sure that course is still an appropriate course for the individual, provided they meet the standards. The standards are everything. But we would not dream of abandoning people halfway through [that].’
In an announcement issued by the regulator this afternoon, chief executive Paul Philip said the case for a form of centralised assessment ‘is strong’.
He said: ‘It addresses the problem that, currently, qualifications are not comparable – multiple courses and exams mean that standards can vary significantly and there is a lack of transparency. Any new assessment needs to be fair and consistent, and ensure that new solicitors can meet the high standards that the public and employers can expect.’
Philip said he recognised the call for more detail, and the need to make sure the exam is targeted and proportionate. ‘I am absolutely clear that a period of work-based learning has to be a fundamental component of the process,’ he added.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: 'Given the widespread and significant concerns raised about the proposals we are pleased the SRA has decided to postpone a final decision on suggested changes to the way people enter the solicitors’ profession. It’s important the relevant stakeholders have ample opportunity to take a holistic view of how the whole qualification process would work and to ensure the best are able to enter the profession irrespective of their background, and that standards are not lowered which is not in the interest of the profession, clients and the public'
He added that Philip's comments on the inclusion of a two-year work-based training period and a degree level qualification 'are a positive indication that feedback from the Law Society is being taken on board by the SRA'.